For many, mental health treatment continues to be stigmatized, but where does feminism and mental health intersect? One in five Americans live with a mental health issue, but 60% do not receive treatment, and one in five women in the U.S. have experienced a mental health condition in the last year according to a Talkspace blog focused on mental health and feminism. The most common mental health issue for women is depression characterized by prominent depressive episodes, but there are a wide variety of other illnesses that affect women. They can range anywhere from anxiety disorders, which are twice as likely to affect women than men, to bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder occurs at the same rates in women and men, but due to rapid shifts in hormone cycles, women are at a rate of three times faster of experiencing symptoms more often than men.
Why is Mental Health Important?
Higher rates of mental illnesses have several causes. First, women experience higher rates of gendered oppression on a regular basis. When looking at several studies, there is clear evidence that shows the negative physical and mental health effects that result from oppression. This is an even bigger issue for women of color, at the intersection of race and gender. While the core idea of feminism is to fight against the oppression of women, there is a higher need to include mental health as an important concern in feminism. The prevalent sexism women face directly leads to symptoms of mental illness. Finally, gender gymnastics which is the term for the many traditional roles that women have in society gives them less control and rewards in their lives. Many of the roles women take on are undervalued, pay less, and are more challenging to advance to higher positions. This leads to women’s lower perceived worth in society and on a personal level.
Why is this a women’s issue?
Taking a deeper look at the gendered differences between women, and men, and their respective rates of mental health diagnoses, the socially constructed roles for each gender define social interactions. These differences lead to varying stress perceptions in daily life and distinct patterns of who is more likely to seek healthcare, or not seek healthcare in some cases. Women are more likely to have a higher perception of distress and encounter it more often, while men are less likely to experience the same. When looking at the patterns of finding healthcare, perceptions of masculinity and femininity are often deciding factors in who seeks out healthcare and the severity of the situation when that decision is made.
There are other disparities between groups of women who experience mental health. One large example is the rate of diagnosis between white and black women. A reason why this discrepancy exists is because of the constant impacts of racism, sexism, and inequality combined. Black people are less likely to seek and accept mental health care, or even have access and insurance at all. Stigma is a major reason for not seeking care, but also the memory of negative experiences asking for help. For example, as depression increases, Black women are less likely to get help or even adequate care, even if they seek it out. Other barriers that exist in seeking care are due to a lack of access to healthcare providers and insurance restrictions. These systemic barriers stop many Black women from receiving treatment and often the process is complex.
What can we do?
Therefore, when looking at the place of feminism as it relates mental health concerns, substantial changes must be made to ensure that mental health care and resources are accessible and affordable for all who seek it. One approach is to use an intersectional view of identities and experiences to help identify shortcomings in solutions. Another way is to recognize that there are mental health diagnoses that are made or ignored based on gender. For example, when looking at borderline personality disorder, it is a challenge to diagnosis because of the stigmatized idea that women are too emotional in the first place. More needs to be done with expanding access, because high quality mental healthcare that is attainable is not only a financial challenge, but a logistical one. Another way to address these problems is to acknowledge that there needs to be broader outreach with information tailored to concerns expressed by different groups.
Overall, to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care needs to be reduced and there are several ways individuals can do this. The first step is to discuss with others around you and share firsthand stories. Another way is to lobby members of Congress to pass much needed mental health support legislation. There have been a variety of bills introduced in the current Congress which expand access in Medicaid, Medicare, and other already created federally funded programs. Legislation includes the “Improving Mental Health Act of 2023 which was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and the “Better Mental Health Care for Americans Act” which was introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). While these bills are good starting points, there needs to be more legislation like the “Women’s Health Protection Act” of 2023. This bill would protect in federal law access to abortion care and would prohibit bans and other restrictions on reproductive healthcare services. While this bill is not mental health related it does emphasize prioritizing situations that cause gender mental health issues like a loss of control over one’s own body. This can reduce depression, anxiety, and other long term mental health issues. Changes must be made to how we view and talk about mental health, and that change starts with passing legislation.
Amelia Risinit, PAC Intern at NOW